Certain foods trigger vivid memories. Mexican mole reminds me of spending Christmas with my college exchange host family in Queretaro. A croque madame with a gooey yolk brings me back to my honeymoon in France with Paul. And spicy jerk chicken rushes me back to my days working as a wire service reporter in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
There, in the congested Caribbean city, I lived in a spacious rented house near the top of a stretch of road dotted with tamarind trees. The street unwound like a lazy measuring tape down a long slope onto the city’s Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant roundabout lined with prestigious government buildings. The nearest grocery store, stocked with staples as well as my coveted imported wine and dark chocolate, taunted me from a mile down the hill where the sidewalk occasionally disappeared into dirt and rocks. I owned no car at first, so hiking to the store and back required time and energy that, in the hot tropical sun, left me pooped for the day.
I muscled up the hill bottles of red wine, chocolate bars, and chicken thighs, distributing the weight evenly between two plastic bags so they didn’t dig into my palms. Luckily, a bottle of Walkerswood jerk sauce added little weight and lasted a week. I slathered the marinade – loaded with scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, and thyme – on the chicken pieces. As the chicken baked, I sipped my hard-earned red wine and watched small, green lizards scurry across my kitchen walls (welcome to the Caribbean!). Eventually, I plunked down a few hundred bucks to buy a used car and could drive to the store whenever I wanted. Still, I made that jerk chicken every week.
I later learned that authentic jerk chicken is barbecued, usually over pimento (allspice) wood, to instill a smoky flavor into the meat. My version brings the job inside to the oven just like I made it in Trinidad, and turns the Scoville rating down by a few clicks by swapping scotch bonnets for serranos, making this dish more wine friendly. If you like your mouth on fire, use scotch bonnets or habaneros. The serrano lime slaw cools your mouth slightly while holding court with a touch of heat and loads of lime flavor.
8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon backed brown sugar
3 serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded
6 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2-1/2 tablespoons grated lime zest (from two limes)
1 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and diced
In a Cuisinart or blender, blend all ingredients until it forms a smooth paste. Place the chicken in a large, sealable plastic bag along with the marinade and shake until the chicken is evenly coated. Leave to marinade at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place the baking rack in the middle of the oven. Line the broiler pan bottom with foil to make clean-up afterward easier (do not line the top with foil as the fat will not drain properly). Remove the chicken from the marinade and place the pieces on the top section of the broiler pan. Bake for 35 minutes, then switch the oven to broil on high. Broil the tops of the chicken for 5 – 10 minutes, moving the pan around as necessary to ensure even browning under the flame. Keep an eye on it to make sure your chicken gets crispy without turning black (it can happen fast!).
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 serrano pepper
4 green onions, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
2-1/2 tablespoon honey
1/3 cup canola oil
Salt and pepper
1 store bought package slaw greens (4- 5 cups)
Combine all ingredients, except the slaw greens, in a blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Place slaw greens in a large bowl and toss with the dressing. Season with salt and pepper and let sit 30 minutes before serving.
When Paul posted to Facebook that we were deploying our pressure cooker for the first time, one friend warned that his mom had used one to make navy beans once when the relief valve blew out. "The beans exploded out all over the ceiling!” Another friend echoed: “My mom had a similar experience. Those old pressure cookers were literally kitchen bombs.” Still another person lamented that we would be missing out on the deep, rich smells produced through slow cooking in a Dutch oven.
Pressure cookers have no legacy in my family, but I still thought of them as mysterious and perhaps a little dangerous. After recently reading a Cook’s Illustrated story on pressure cookers declaring them safe and easy to use – and watching countless Top Chef episodes featuring cheftestants relying on them for tender, moist meat in under an hour – I knew I wanted one. I sat down at my computer, opened my browser, and – one click and two shipping days later – my Fagor 8-quart duo pressure cooker arrived.
After several delicious test runs, I’m enamored. Our pressure cooker produces the most tender, tasty lamb I've ever made. And the smell! It’s even more concentrated and fragrant than lamb cooked in a Dutch oven. The steam jets straight from the cinnamon-infused lamb right into our kitchen. I’m still loyal to my Dutch oven but the quality of lamb from the pressure cooker is superior in flavor, moistness, and tenderness.
I adapted this dish from Saveur magazine’s November 2012 feature “Couscous Royale” showcasing Moroccan tagines and other Maghreb specialties as they are served in Parisian restaurants. My version reduces the amount of honey and water for the pressure cooker and includes dates instead of raisins. Saveur instructs cooks to braise the shanks for three and a half hours on the stovetop. With the pressure cooker, these tender shanks are done in an hour and taste sublime.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 lamb shanks
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup dates
3/4 cup blanched whole almonds
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons store bought or homemade ras el hanout (North African spice mix)
1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
1 stick cinnamon
Toasted sesame seeds to garnish
Season the lamb generously. Heat oil and butter in an 8-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat. Brown the lamb on all sides, about 12 minutes total. Transfer the lamb to a plate; set aside.
I nosh on this cake at breakfast with a dollop of Greek yogurt on the side, savor it after lunch with a shot of espresso, or linger over it after dinner with a sip of cognac. Remarkably moist with pops of juicy blueberry fruit and crunchy almond slices in each bite, this cake is delicious any time of day. It's also gluten free with half the carbs and sugar of regular cake but (shhh!) you'd never know.
1-1/2 cups Bob's Red Mill almond flour
1/2 cup coconut flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup milk
1-1/2 cup blueberries, washed, drained, and dried of excess water with a paper towel
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup of virgin coconut oil
1/3 cup almond slices
Line a springform baking pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 375.
Beat the coconut oil and sugar together until smooth. With the beater running, add eggs, one at a time. Beat until smooth and then slowly drizzle in the milk.
In a separate bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, and salt. Whisk into the egg mixture until combined. Add the berries and fold them in with a spoon. Pour into the parchment-lined springform pan. Smooth the top of the cake dough so it's flat. Top with almond slices. Place the cake in the oven, turn down the temperature to 350 and bake for about 40 minutes. (I always heat the oven a little hotter at first because of all the heat that escapes when you open the door). Test it with a toothpick for doneness and cook longer if needed.
On a recent trip to Union Market in Washington D.C., I spotted a single, small plastic baggie of piment d'esplette at the spice shop. “Oh my god,” I called out to Paul. “What? What?” He rushed over. I picked up the baggie, eyeballed it, pressed my nose to it, and breathed deeply. The aroma was complex and sweet with a hint of heat. “Amazing. Smell this.” I lifted it to his nostrils.
The high culinary praise and relative scarcity of piment d’esplette has intrigued me for years. I occasionally see it in recipes but have never seen it for sale.
After he breathed through the plastic and swooned over the same mysterious aroma, I noticed the price sticker: $25. “I’m not paying that.” He grabbed it from me. “We’re getting it.” Paul lives to spoil me. I live to prevent such spoilage (and preserve our collective wallets). But against this precious baggie, I had no defenses. He handed it to the cashier, who placed it in a small paper bag. I squeezed Paul's arm. “Thanks, honey.”
I discovered that the rich-flavored esplette pepper is cultivated in the small French commune of Esplette near the border of Spain, and hung on balconies to dry. An annual pepper festival attracts thousands of tourists, marking the end of harvest season. I pictured French grandmas with pale blue sundresses and big arms wrestling shiny red pepper bundles from balconies and felt better about the $25. (The reality is the AOC-designated spice has spurred an entire industry of hard working farmers with regulated production techniques. Still, I picture the grandmas and smile.)
I sprinkle the jewel-red powder on everything from baked eggs and frittatas to soups and braised dishes. It lends a complex, mild and sweet heat to many dishes. Occasionally, I combine it with a pinch of paprika and a pinch of cayenne to give my dish the full spectrum of pepper flavor.
For this fish stew, I drew inspiration from Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s Sicilian fish soup recipe in her iBook “Italian Holidays.” I admire Rossetto Kasper but found her version lacked heat and acid. Piment d’esplette – and a touch of Pernod (another recent discovery) – was exactly what it needed. My coveted French ingredients transformed this stalwart Italian fare to a remarkably delicious bowl of soup.
When I returned to the spice store at Union Market last week to plop down $25 for another baggie, they were out of stock. The young woman tending to customers said she had never heard of it but she was intrigued. "What does it taste like?"
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup diced spicy Italian salami
3 large leeks, white part only, coarsely chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced into sticks (fronds reserved for garnish)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, bruised with a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup tightly packed Italian parsley leaves, minced
6 garlic cloves, crushed and quartered
grated zest of one orange (reserving a small amount for garnish)
2 cups drained whole canned tomatoes
8 cups fish stock
15 pitted black oil-cured olives (for garnish)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) piment d’esplette (if you can't find it, substitute paprika with a pinch of cayenne)
2 tablespoon Pernod
2 pounds of mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 pounds white fish
1 pound shrimp, shells on, or shelled with tail left intact (if you shell the shrimp, use the shells to enhance or supplement the fish broth by simmering the shells in water or fish stock, and straining out the shells, before adding the stock)
In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, sautee the salami in olive oil over medium heat for two minutes. Add the leeks, fennel bulb, and parsley and cook until the leeks are soft. Stir in the garlic, bruised fennel seed, and three-quarters of the orange zest. Sautee for another minute. Add the tomatoes. Cook over medium high heat for three minutes. Add the broth. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, then the piment d’esplette and Pernod.
About 30 minutes before serving, add the mussels and fish and cook covered for 2 - 3 minutes. Finally, add the shrimp and cook uncovered for another 2- 3 minutes. Once the shellfish are open and the shrimp have turned completely pink, it’s time to eat. Garnish each bowl with chopped olives, fennel fronds, and remaining orange zest.
When I was growing up, any dish that simmered on the stove for more than an hour signaled a special occasion. Dad's chili, a hearty, meat-and-bean fest loaded cayenne, was one of those dishes. We devoured big bowls of it, cooling off our mouths with sweet Jiffy corn muffins.
I watched my barrel-chested Dad, who cooked in Hanes cotton tank tops, brown the beef and then add layers of chili powder, chopped yellow onion, minced garlic, canned chopped tomatoes, and kidney beans. To finish, he tossed a spoonful of sugar into the giant, steaming pot, and let all the flavors meld together for another hour or two or until our bellies howled with hunger.
My job was easy: I shook the cornmeal mix from the Jiffy box into a ceramic bowl, cracked an egg, and poured in skim milk. It was fail-proof, even for a 12-year-old. The muffins always turned out golden and fluffy just like the sunshine yellow muffins on the box cover.
I've made chili a couple of times since childhood but my attempts fell flat. I was no longer cooking with Dad and I missed the simple sweetness and chew of those Jiffy muffins!
Discovering Daniel Boulud's chili in his book "Braise" awakened me to a different kind of chili, a no-bean chili with various dried peppers, roasted and then ground, adding layers of heat and flavor. It inspired this version, which relies on more widely available chiles, alters technique and timing, uses a mix of fresh and processed tomatoes, and, like Dad's, adds a touch of sweet at the end. I transformed the cornbread platform into a steaming pot of polenta with fresh, sweet corn kernels and diced queso fresco, a sweet-salty combo that cools off the mouth from the arbol-pepper burn and varies the texture. Thankfully, a delicious, soulful chili no longer lives in the past. The nostalgia is here and now.
2-1/2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1-1/2 pounds ground beef
1/4 pound slab bacon
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, diced
2 limes (juice and zest)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (use regular oregano if you don’t have Mexican)
1/4 cup homemade chili powder (see recipe, below)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 box (26.5 ounces) of Pomi chopped tomatoes
1 large, fresh garden tomato, chopped
2-1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
2-3 tablespoons honey to taste
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper to season
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the chuck roast cubes on all sides in 3 - 4 batches (about 5 minutes per batch), then remove from the pan. Add the slab bacon and cook until the fat is rendered. Add the diced onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the reserved beef cubes and all remaining ingredients except the cilantro, and combine. Cover on low heat for two hours. Check periodically and adjust seasoning and add water if it's too dry. Top each bowl with cilantro leaves when serving.
(makes about ¼ cup, enough for one batch of chili)
4 ancho peppers
4 guajillo peppers
4 chilies de arbol
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chili peppers on all sides for 5 to 7 minutes, ensuring they do not burn. Let them cool, then stem and seed them. Grind them in a spice grinder (I tasked an old coffee grinder with the job).
1 cup polenta
1/4 cup diced queso fresco
2 ears of corn, kernels cut from the husk and set aside
1 tablespoon of butter
Salt to taste
Heat the butter in a skillet. Add the corn kernels and the salt and sauté until soft. Cook the polenta with water as package indicates. When the polenta is three-quarters of the way finished cooking, add the queso fresco and the corn. Season with salt to taste.
Pour the chili over the polenta and top with fresh cilantro.